Gaffes, controversy overshadow S. Korean president’s overseas trips

President Yoon Suk-yeol was also criticized for not paying homage to Queen Elizabeth on his first day in London. (AP image)

SEOUL: A series of gaffes and controversies overshadowed South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol’s first major foreign tour, which plummeted his ratings and drew scathing criticism from some lawmakers even within his own party.

This week Yoon visited London for Queen Elizabeth’s funeral and then New York on his first US trip to attend the UN General Assembly before arriving in Canada on Thursday.

In the most prominent controversy, Yoon was caught cursing on a hot microphone as he left an event in New York after a brief conversation with US President Joe Biden on Wednesday.

“What an embarrassment… when these bastards refuse to approve it in parliament,” Yoon Foreign Minister Park Jin said in a video broadcast by South Korean broadcasters that went viral on social media.

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Opposition lawmakers accused Yoon of insulting Biden and disgracing South Korea when media initially reported that Yoon said Biden would be embarrassed if the US Congress didn’t pass legislation funding a global initiative.

His spokeswoman Kim Eun-hye dismissed the accusation, saying Yoon was referring to the South Korean parliament without mentioning Biden.

Reuters could not independently verify what exactly Yoon said.

Yoon’s harsh comments drew criticism from some members of his own party, whose faction leader called it “extremely regrettable.”

Officials had hoped the trip would be an opportunity to showcase Yoon’s vision for what they called a “key global state” that would deter North Korea’s weapons tests and address other pressing issues, including US subsidies for electric vehicles.

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Opposition lawmakers also accused Yoon of “degrading the national image” by failing to pay tribute to Queen Elizabeth on his first day in London, which his office blamed on heavy traffic. Traffic in London was tightly controlled as mourners queued for miles to see the Queen’s coffin and some high-profile guests, including French President Emmanuel Macron, got there on foot.

They also slammed Yoon for not holding proper summits with Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, calling his trip a “diplomatic disaster.”

Yoon and Biden had planned informal talks in New York but ended up only having a 48-second call at the Global Fund. Yoon’s office said this was a “Plan B” due to changes in Biden’s schedule, and said they also met in London when Yoon raised the electric vehicle subsidy issue.

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Earlier, a controversy erupted after Japanese media reported that Kishida considered canceling a meeting with Yoon.

An official in Yoon’s office said there were “differences of opinion” over the timing of the talks’ announcement and that Tokyo appears to be “cautious” as both sides seek ways to ease strained ties.

The diplomatic controversies could make it harder for Yoon to garner support from the opposition, which has a majority in parliament to pass legislation or bolster his political efforts, and helped shorten his voter honeymoon following his May election victory. Yoon’s approval ratings fell to 28% from last week’s 33% in a Gallup poll released Friday.

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